Although I believe that traditionally the "Armless Maiden" narratives are about female rites of passage to adulthood, within the story is the troubling echo of abuse. Male heroes may be impoverished or temporarily robbed of their royal birthrights, but rarely are they so vindictively mutilated before they are turned out into their journeys. Storytellers know well the constant underlying fear and threat of violence that surround the lives of women in their communities from childhood into adulthood. The exploitation of these terrifying images in the narrative may be extreme, but they are the dark threads pulled out of the fabric of our shared experiences as women. We are repulsed and angered by the brutal actions, not because such events could never happen, but because they frequently do. The fantastic emerges quickly in the story to magically soften the pain of mutilation, and move the audience away from the horror of the event and into the journey of self–discovery. Though the terror of the attack is short, as long as the girl remains mutilated we are reminded of the continuing painful isolation that such blows inflict. Survivors of abuse know that isolation well — whether as a child stripped of innocence among those still cloaked, or as an adult unable to bridge the fear of betrayal, and trust in the love of another.
It takes acts of self–determination and power to restore a sense of wholeness after abuse. In a Breton version of the "Armless Maiden," the heroine is mutilated by her brother in a thorn grove and speaks out against the crime with the calm assurance of a prophet. Armless and bleeding, she tells him that the thorn he is about to step on will be removed only by her hand. In that moment of intense pain and betrayal she is able to envision her life restored to wholeness. And what is more, she envisions her forgiveness of this terrible crime. The narrative is not about her survival as a victim, rather it is about her journey as a committed traveler fully aware of her destination.
The need for restoration and reconciliation are not the armless girl's alone in the versions employing the motif of the thorn grove. Abusers too are isolated by the shame and brutality of their violent acts. The brother in the thorn grove versions barely survives in the armless maiden's absence, his body imprisoned and pierced by a punishing vine of thorns that grows from the offending thorn in his heel. When the armless maiden returns to fulfill her prophecy, her transformation from a girl to a woman possessed of creative power is confirmed as she frees her brother from the prison of thorns with the touch of her restored hands. In so doing, she removes forever the corrupting taint of violence, allowing them both to continue in their new lives, unshackled by the past.
The armless maiden continues to haunt the imaginations of modern storytellers, but as something much more than a girl caught in a complex rite of passage to adulthood and marriage. She stands as an icon for the perils of change, the threat of violence that surrounds women's lives, and our own occasional resistance to undertaking the labor of transformation. Whether we chose it for ourselves or have it thrust upon us by circumstances, change demands both an act of undoing, a severing of the past, and an act of reaching, sometimes with little more than faith, for an imagined future. But this journey, composed of dangerous and destructive moments, speaks as eloquently about the real potential for failure and the threat of remaining permanently wounded. The exchange of forged letters denigrates the young mother's life and her creative achievements in the birth of her child. If she believes the letters, then she must accept her worthlessness and become an accomplice in her own dehumanization. If she capitulates to this outside voice of authority, if she forgoes the risks of transformation, she remains truncated, alienated from her true creative self.
In her poem Girl Without Hands, Margaret Atwood calls the reader to examine her own forgotten journey by the use of the second person voice. You are the modern professional woman walking to work unable, despite "the sunlight pouring over/ the seen world," to be part of the world. Instead, you remain enclosed in a circle "you have made, that clean circle/ of dead space you have made," believing yourself secure in this stagnant prison. Only the armless maiden can understand what it means for you to be so isolated, so out of touch from a full and authentic participation in life. But like the "you" of the poem, Atwood's armless maiden is a mutilated girl, a girl who has "Everything bled out of her" and who can only reach with "absent hands" to offer comfort. The poem evades the storyteller's promise of restoration, choosing to sympathize with those who have remained psychologically maimed.
But without the final gift of restoration, only the brutal and numbing violence of the story remains. The shocking metaphor of mutilation in the tale erupted with savage reality in Sierra Leone's Civil War of the 1990s. A decade long war that killed over 50,000 people, displaced more than 500,000 refugees, and committed unspeakable atrocities on its people also produced a nation of armless maidens. The rebel armies of the RUF, many of them abducted child soldiers who were themselves traumatized victims, instigated a policy of mutilating civilians, even severing the hands and limbs of toddlers. Today, although the war is over and a commission for Truth and Reconciliation has been established to address these war crimes, the situation of women in Sierra Leone remains desperate at best. Poverty, illiteracy, and the shame associated with sexual assault and mutilation make it difficult to imagine a society restored to wholeness. And yet, there are glimpses of hope. The recent election of Ellen Johnson–Sirleaf as President of Liberia, a participant country in Sierra Leone's Civil War, (and the first woman president of Africa), argues the possibility of change in the lives of West African women. But as in the tale, this second journey after an interlude of partial healing remains a perilous road, crowded with wounded women and traumatized children, their search for justice comprising the first steps in the creation of genuine peace. For many of these Sierra Leone women only the twin hands of education and economic development will provide healing and a second chance.